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Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 406-423

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Civility and the City in Coriolanus

Cathy Shrank


This essay addresses two recurrent concerns of criticism on Coriolanus: politics and language. Annabel Patterson has commented on the "potential" of Coriolanus "to excite a political response."1 That interpretations of Coriolanus have been—almost without exception—politicized is as true for modern productions and critical appraisals as for seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century adaptations. Almost every constitutional crisis in post-Restoration Britain prompted a rewriting of the play. Nahum Tate's The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth (1681) places Coriolanus within the context of the Exclusion Crisis; John Dennis's The Invader of his Country (1719) draws explicit parallels between Martius and James Stuart, the Old Pretender, evoking Stuart's failed attempts to invade England in 1708 and 1715; and James Thomson's Coriolanus (1749) aligns Martius with Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, in the wake of the Second Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. The play has similarly reflected the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe: in the Mussolini-like death of Laurence Olivier's Martius at Stratford in 1959, or in the English Shakespeare Company's production of 1990, directed by Michael Bogdanov, set against the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.2 The politics alluded to, however, are almost always "high" politics, be they those theatrical examples above, or—at the other end of the chronological spectrum—C. C. Huffman's critical exploration of Coriolanus in the context of James I's relations with the English Parliament.3

What I want to suggest is that, when analyzing the politics of Coriolanus, we also need to consider more localized contexts. This at least provides a way of reconciling the incontrovertibly political nature and republican setting of Coriolanus with the monarchical society within which it was produced. As Patrick Collinson puts it, [End Page 406] "Coriolanus was written for an audience familiar with the notion of a balanced republic but not itself republican, nor experiencing republicanism."4 Collinson explains the discrepancy by cautioning us "not to underestimate both the political sophistication and the political capacity of high Elizabethan society, a society which had cut its political teeth in the acephalous conditions of Edward VI's minority."5 While few among Coriolanus's original audience would have experienced the "acephalous" conditions of Edward VI's reign, the political sophistication acquired during that period did not die out with Elizabeth's Edwardian counselors: a humanist tradition, Markku Peltonen has argued, in which the English portrayed themselves as citizens and depicted their life as one of participation, not subjection, continued uninterrupted from the mid-sixteenth century to the Civil War.6 Nor was an awareness of "monarchical republicanism" restricted to those close to the workings of power. The 1584 Bond of Association, which made provision for the continued government of the realm within the potential vacuum left by Elizabeth's death, included the signatures of freeholders, farmers, and town-dwellers from the English and Welsh regions. In doing so, this "quasi-republican" document gives—in Collinson's words—"a vivid insight into both the autonomous political capacity of the Elizabethan republic and its extent and social depth, a carpet, as it were, with a generous pile."7 Further to that, it endorses Peltonen's argument that a form of republican thought and a belief in active participation survived the life-span of the Edwardian-era Englishmen, many of whom—William Cecil excepted—had died by the early 1580s.

There was, however, another way in which far wider sections of the population experienced the kind of political participation that would have made Coriolanus's Rome recognizable: namely, the civic politics of the 204 towns and cities throughout England that had been incorporated by the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century. These corporate towns and cities enjoyed a degree of legislative autonomy and civic jurisdiction, and many had the right to elect parliamentary representatives.8 This form of limited self-government is reflected in the words of the [End Page 407] Venetian ambassador Giovanni Micheli, who compares the English municipalities...


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